Labors of love can be executed well or badly, and one of the many pleasures of this new book from McFarland – quite apart from the fact that its author, Ben Davis, interviewed me at some length for it (full disclosure), and quotes me accurately — is that it’s done so well. This is above all a work of social history, and because the 34 years that it covers includes all of my own extended sojourns in Manhattan and environs (in particular, 1961-1963, 1966-1969, 1978-1983), I can vouch for its accuracy as well as its success in evoking a now-vanished film culture without ever succumbing to the distortions of nostalgia. (I was interviewed mainly about my adventures in programming at the Carnegie Hall Cinema and the Bleecker Street Cinema, thanks to the support and assistance of Jackie Raynal and Sid Geffen.) The fine selection of photographs also helps a lot — although, thanks to the vagaries of the Internet, only one of these (the first) is posted below. [5/25/17]
Written for Criterion’s Blu-Ray release of Ozu’s Good Morning and I Was Born, But… — J.R.
Structures and Strictures in Suburbia
From its very opening, Good Morning is deeply and delightfully musical, both in its orchestrations of static visual elements in the first two shots (the juxtaposition of adjacent houses with fences and clotheslines, and all these horizontals with the verticality of electrical towers) and in its varying rhythmic patterns of human movement, which are no less orchestrated, as various figures cross the pathways between houses, between houses and hill, and on top of the hill itself—always, mysteriously, moving from right to left. And what could be more musical than the opening gag, occurring on the same sunny hilltop, of little boys farting for their own amusement, still another form of theme and variations?
All of which prompts me to disagree respectfully with the late Ozu specialist Donald Richie when he maintained, “Good Morning, in some ways Ozu’s most schematic film, certainly one of his least complicated formally, is an example of a film constructed around motifs.” Certainly the motifs are there, and these are vital; the two examined by Richie as sterling examples are the farting and the greeting embodied in the film’s title, and numerous variations are run on both.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (May 9, 2003). — J.R.
The Shape of Things
*** (A must-see)
Directed and written by Neil LaBute
With Rachel Weisz, Paul Rudd, Frederick Weller, and Gretchen Mol.
The first time I saw Neil LaBute’s The Shape of Things it packed a wallop. When I saw it again three weeks later it didn’t. Its force depends largely on a shock ending that transforms one’s sense of the characters, action, and overall theme with the authority of a masterpiece. Without this shock value, the film is still an infernal machine — designed, like LaBute’s In the Company of Men, to goad us into dark reflection — but its meanings tend to contract rather than expand.
Surprise endings either cancel out the impressions that come before, making the story seem contrived and artificial the second time around, or they enhance and complicate those impressions. The twist at the end of The Shape of Things comes closer to doing the first. The second time I saw it I felt I was watching the demonstration of a theorem more than the unraveling of characters, though it was only after having absorbed the disclosures of a first viewing that I became aware of certain interesting ambiguities.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (August 15, 1997). — J.R
In the Company of Men
Rating **** Masterpiece
Directed and written by Neil LaBute
With Aaron Eckhart, Stacy Edwards, Matt Malloy, Michael Martin, Mark Rector, Chris Hayes, Jason Dixie, and Emily Cline.
In the weeks leading up to this year’s Cannes film festival it wasn’t clear whether the Iranian government would allow Abbas Kiarostami’s The Taste of Cherry, which it had banned in Iran because of its treatment of the theme of suicide, to be shown. The issue was settled before the festival started, but that didn’t stop Gilles Jacob, the festival director, from orchestrating the film’s arrival as if it were still a cliff-hanger — so that when it wound up sharing the top prize, the award was made to seem like a triumphant statement against government censorship of the arts.
I was delighted that Kiarostami’s film won, because I liked it better than anything else I saw at the festival — and it was the only time in my eight years of attending Cannes that my favorite had been so honored. But I felt queasy about the waves of self-congratulation this provoked among some members of the press (none, I should add, encouraged in any way by Kiarostami) — especially when it became apparent that the film would probably open in Iran after all.… Read more »
One ironic footnote to the following article, which ran in the March 6, 1992 issue of the Chicago Reader, is that it was itself subjected to a kind of “soft censorship”. Specifically, my editors refused to allow me to allude to having known Chevy Chase personally as a classmate at Bard College during the mid-1960s, which I thought gave some additional weight to some of my reflections about the personal nature of Memoirs of an Invisible Man. (Since I no longer have access to my initial draft, I can’t spell this out here in any detail, except to note that Chase’s jazz piano now figures in the final draft only as a parenthetical detail.) Not only did Chevy and I share a course or two, but we also bonded in various ways through our mutual interest in jazz: in a few student jam sessions, I played piano while Chevy played drums (although he also played some piano even then), and we collaborated at one point with Blythe Danner (another Bard classmate, and a jazz vocalist at the time) on a successful project to bring Bill Evans and his trio to campus to give a concert. —J.R.
THE WAGES OF FEAR
*** (A must-see)
Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot
Written by Clouzot and Jerome Geronimi
With Yves Montand, Charles Vanel, Vera Clouzot, Folco Lulli, Peter Van Eyck, and William Tubbs.… Read more »
This review appeared in the November 6, 1987 issue of the Chicago Reader. A visitor of this site, Mark Goldberg, has alerted me to a French site devoted to dance where the 1986 Mammame can now be accessed via streaming for free; he has also generously grabbed some frames from this version as much better substitutes for the poor illustrations I had up originally, and I’ve drawn a few other illustrations from the same site, which is another reason for reposting this review now. — J.R.
Directed by Raoul Ruiz
Choreographed by Jean-Claude Gallotta
With the Emile Dubois Dance Company.
The more attention is paid to stylizing the screen, to make the quality of how it looks convey the meaning, the closer you get to dance, which is precisely that — the communication of meaning through the quality of movement. — Maya Deren
While it seems plausible, even likely, that Raoul Ruiz is currently the most inventive filmmaker working in Europe, one does not ordinarily go to his work looking for masterpieces. An obsessive doodler — in the same serious way, one should add, that the cartoonist Saul Steinberg is, combining philosophical and metaphysical wit with a penchant for rethinking the world so that it encompasses his boundless energies — Ruiz is blessed and cursed by never knowing when to stop.… Read more »
From Sight and Sound, Winter 1982/1983, and reprinted in my collection Placing Movies. It was initially commissioned by Peter Biskind for American Film, who decided not to run it and paid me a kill fee, so I sent it next to Penelope Houston, who accepted it without hesitation. Originally, this piece was designed to be run with my translation of a brief, early piece by Barthes (“Au Cinemascope,” originally published in Les Lettres Nouvelles, February 1954). To my frustration, after Sight and Sound secured the rights to run this piece, they wound up omitting it due to lack of space, but it has subsequently appeared online in at least two places: here and here (the latter on this site). – J.R.
One reason for looking at the late Roland Barthes’ writings about film is that we all tend to be much too specialized in the ways that we think about culture in general and movies in particular. Far from being a film specialist, Barthes could even be considered somewhat cinephobic (to coin a term), at least for a Frenchman. Speaking to Jacques Rivette and Michel Delahaye in 1963, he confessed, “I don’t go very often to the cinema, hardly once a week” — inadvertently revealing the French passion for movies that can infect even a relative nonbeliever.… Read more »
From the Winter 1984/1985 Sight and Sound. Only years after writing and publishing this essay, I recalled seeing a test reel of Cinemascope with my father at an Atlanta movie exhibitors convention in 1953, part of which included a refilming of the “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” number in CinemaScope. I have no idea whether this still exists, but it may help to account for why some people misremember or wrongly identify the entire film as being in CinemaScope.
For those who might be puzzled by the third illustration from the end, this is Dominique Labourier’s character performing in a nightclub in Céline et Julie vont en bateau, in a sequence that precisely parallels the courtroom sequence in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. – J.R.
First Number: “We’re Just Two Little Girls from Little Rock”
I don’t believe in the kino-eye; I believe in the kino-fist. — Sergei Eisenstein
Before even the credit titles can appear, Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell arrive to a blast of music at screen center from behind a black curtain, in matching orange-red outfits that sizzle the screen — covered with spangles, topped with feathers — to look at one another, toss white ermines toward the camera and out of frame and sing robustly in unison.… Read more »